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Opinion: Kill Your Affiliation

Lost Remote’s Steve Safran, who’s a reliable performer in the shaking-things-up department, is at it again on the LR site, suggesting that affiliating with networks increasingly looks to be the wrong long-term play for stations.

He opines:

The old model won’t die, exactly. But it’s not going to be sustainable the way it still is. So, I ask, since the networks are finding ways to reach their audience (and the audience’s money), why aren’t the affiliates doing the same?

Local affiliates like to talk a lot about their branding. It’s a kind of religion. It’s not without merit, but I have found branding can also hinder progress. (”That’s not our brand!” That’s inconsistent with our mission statement!”) Usually the brands are about news. But news is a small part of a local’s programming. You’re running talk shows, soaps, gossip programs, syndicated programs and “The Simpsons” reruns, yet your brand is “News You Can Trust?”

Safran’s essay comes at a time when networks and affiliates are fighting each other over retrans earnings and the escalating costs of being an affiliate. Many are wondering when the networks will shift their programming directly to cable, especially with a cable giant such as Comcast (or “Kabletown,” to fans of 30 Rock), in the process of acquiring one of the broadcast networks.

Safran paints a picture of what life in the post-network/affiliate world may look like.

The network now exists for its own sake. Sure, if it lost affiliates, it would lose audience. But that’s right now. Comcast recently purchased NBC, and it says it’s not going to take NBC and put it on cable only. I believe that. But I also believe there will be a day when there are things like “The NBC Channel” or “The NBC Comedy Channel.” They may have different programming than what they feed the affiliates, but Comcast is in the content (and distribution) business; it would be foolish for it not to use the resources of NBC to build new channels or, at the very least, push new programming out via new platforms.

So we don’t exactly hit the doomsday scenario here (a network “going cable”), but we can see the progression: networks don’t need affiliates. The process is vestigial. And if that’s so, why wait for the inevitable?

What will happen next? Affiliates will get their programming directly from production studios. You used to need syndicators for this process, and now you don’t. Can you think of any reason why a local affiliate shouldn’t be able to program its own lineup? Radio stations do it. Newspapers aren’t beholden to a master plan. It’s only TV, with its ancient DNA, that doesn’t take advantage of the new opportunities.